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In the years prior to the building of the Hall, the city's African American population had grown substantially as freed and fugitive slaves began to unite with the city's substantial Quaker population in the struggle to end slavery.
Periodic outbreaks of racial, ethnic and religious violence were common for nearly 15 years, culminating in 1842s Lombard Street Riot. It was in the midst of this turmoil that the Hall was to be built.
The Hall was originally built by the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society in 1838, emblazoned with the motto "Virtue, Liberty and Independence", and hailed as "one of the most commodious and splendid buildings in the city." To finance construction a joint-stock company was created. Two thousand people bought $20 shares, raising over $40,000. Others donated material and labor.
I learnt with great satisfaction. . . that the Pennsylvania Hall Association have erected a large building in your city, wherein liberty and equality of civil rights can be freely discussed, and the evils of slavery fearlessly portrayed. . . . I rejoice that , in the city of Philadelphia, the friends of free discussion have erected a Hall for its unrestrained exercise.
By the following day, though, detractors had blanketed the city with notices addressed to "citizens who entertain a proper respect for the right of property," asking them to "interfere, forcibly if they must, and prevent the violation of these pledges (the preservation of the Constitution of the United States), heretofore held sacred."
That morning, the Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women met in the Hall. By the third day, though, a growing group of men began to gather at the building, "prowling about the doors, examining the gas-pipes, and talking in an 'incendiary' manner to groups which they collected around them in the street."
That evening, William Lloyd Garrison introduced Maria Weston Chapman to an audience of 3,000 abolitionists. The mob outside grew violent smashing windows and breaking into the meeting. Despite the turmoil, Angelina Grimké Weld convinced the audience to stay with an hour long speech. To protect their more vulnerable members, the group of whites and blacks left the gathering arm in arm, through a hail of rocks and jeers.
Despite orders from the city's mayor to restrict the following day's meeting to white women only, the Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women met again, in full. Fearing for their safety, the hired managers of the building gave the Hall's keys to the mayor, who promptly locked the doors and announced that all further meetings had been cancelled.
The mob soon broke into the building and set fires. Though the mayor returned with the police, they were unwilling or unable to restore order. By 9 pm, the building was engulfed in flames. Arriving firefighters did nothing to save the Hall, spraying water on only surrounding buildings. One unit of firefighters did attempt to spray the Hall, only to become targets of the other units hoses. Three days after its opening, the Hall had been destroyed. Over the following days, the mob continued their assault, destroying a black orphans' shelter and heavily damaging a black church.
In the end, the city's official report blamed the fire and riots on the abolitionists, saying they had upset the citizens by encouraging "race mixing" and inciting violence.
The original structure stood for a mere three days before being burned to the ground by anti-black rioters on May 18, 1838. Despite the brevity of its existence, the Hall was frequently cited by various racial, ethnic and religious groups throughout the city as an argument for their claimed right to defend their properties through armed force.
Today, a state historical marker stands at the original location, on 6th Street immediately south of Race Street in Philadelphia.
- DuBois, W.E.B. The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996.
- Newlin, Heather. phillyhistory.org. "The Calm After the Storm. Accessed April 30, 2008.
- "pbs.org. Africans in America. "[http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4p2938.html Pennsylvania Hall ]". Accessed May 1, 2008.
- Pennsylvania Freeman, n. 14. July 18, 1844. "The Riots". Accessed April 30, 2008.
- Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. Search for Historical Markers". Accessed May 1, 2008.